Seal, the Great
On the reverse of the silver certificate for one dollar ("dollar bill") issued by the Treasury Department of the United States is a symbolic design representing a truncated pyramid on a shield surrounded by two mottoes in Latin. It has been stated or intimated in Masonic periodicals that this is a Masonic design, or else was suggested by Masonic symbolism, but this is a mistake; the design is nothing other than the reverse side (and therefore the less familiar side) of the Great Seal of the United States, has no Masonic significance, and was not suggested by Masonic symbols; and, as will be seen, of the three men responsible for the design only one was a Mason. On July 4, 1776, the Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson a special Committee to draw up the design for a Great Seal. Many designs were submitted to the Committee; one made by William Barton, somewhat altered, was adopted by the Congress on June 20, 1782. The obverse ("face") and reverse sides of the shield are described in technical heraldic language as follows:
"Arms. Poleways stripes of thirteen pieces argent and gules; a chief azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper; and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.
"For the Crest: over the head of the eagle which appears above the escutcheon, a glory breaking through a cloud proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation, argent and on an azure field "Reverse. A pyramid unfinished. In the zenith an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory, proper; over the eye these words 'Annuit Coeptis.' On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters 'MDCCLD and underneath, the following motto: 'Novus Ordo Seclorum'."
The poleways were vertical stripes. Argent was white; gules was red; azure was blue; the eseutcheon, was the shield; proper meant upright; dexter is the right hand, toward the right; sinister is the left Loosely translated Annuit Coeptis is "God has fax ored; or prospered, the undertaking"; Norus Ordo Seclorum is "A new series of ages," that is, a new order of things. The obverse side of the Seal is really the Chat of Arms of the United States. Mr. Barton, the designer, explained the eseutcheon, etc., as "denoting the confederacy of the United States of America, and the preservation of their union through Congress." He explained that the pyramid on the reverse side "signifies strength and duration; the eye over it and the motto alludes to the many signal interpositions of Providence in favor of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence; and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American era, which commences from that date."
It is significant for American history that the Great Seal was adopted five years before the Constitution was written, and reflects the then prevalent idea of a confederation of thirteen independent nations loosely tied together by a Congress. This was a unilateral government, and consisted wholly of Congress. The Constitution introduced a wholly different system, a tripartite government with three equal departments of the Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary, each in balance with the other two. It is for this reason that the Great Seal does not include emblems of either the Presidency or of the Supreme Court.
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